|Fritz Kellerman, from BBC1's SS-GB|
The recent TV series for SS-GB and The Man In The High Castle have sparked a lot of interest about what would have happened if the Nazis had won World War Two. This interest in alternate histories is not new, even on film or TV.
Len Deighton wrote SS-GB (published in 1978) when he’d just finished researching, writing and publishing his military history book Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain and was about to do the same for Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk (1979) – both very readable, really excellent military histories. (In 1993 Len also wrote Blood, Tears and Folly: The Darkest Hour of the Second World War (to misquote Winston Churchill), a highly critical review of the period, up to the US coming into World War Two, with a reminder of how close to defeat the Allies were.
According to Len's "What if...?" article in the 18-24 February 2017 edition of the Radio Times, published to coincide with the recent SS-GB TV mini-series, in the mid-1970s, discussing the research for Fighter and Blitzkrieg, his editor made a comment to the effect that nobody knew what would have happened if Hitler had won the war. Len said that we did “to some extent” and Ray Hawkey (a close friend of Len’s, famously the dust jacket designer for SS-GB and most of Len’s books and producer of the British Hitler-head postage stamps, developed as a promotion for SS-GB) asked if it would make a book, an “alternative world story.”
It took Len a few years to decide to write the book – he’d “avoided anything in the nature of science fiction or fantasy” – but when he did, SS-GB was the result and the World War Two theme carried on into his next novel, “XPD” (1981), with a wartime back story.
Of course, alternative or alternate histories are very popular speculative fiction (not science fiction) topics: what if the Roman Empire had not fallen; if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo (“a near run thing”); if the South had won the American Civil War; the Nazis had won World War Two; and the like. Additionally, military historians also play the game - but as counterfactual histories, not novels. The difference with alternates and counterfactuals is that counterfactuals have to be based on historical events that could have actually changed, and are read as history, not fiction, even if they are! So, for the Second World War, Lord Halifax becoming Prime Minister and not Winston Churchill would be permissible; or, the Germans winning the Battle of Britain; or a successful invasion of Britain; or D-Day failing, etc. It’s not enough just to say the Germans won the war. There’s a terrific reminder in Robert Cowley’s “What If?” anthology, which I mention below, that in 1931 Winston Churchill was knocked down and injured in New York by a cab while crossing 5th Avenue. He suffered a head wound and some broken ribs – what if he’d been killed?
SS-GB fits right into this speculative fiction genre, but is more than just an alternate fiction book because the backstory is based on the counterfactual successful invasion of Britain and benefits from Len’s background as a military historian of some note. It is, therefore, a really superior example, definitely my number one alternate history; but there are other novels which merit a further look, though, of course, any list is going to be very subjective.
So to provide an insight into this fascinating genre, even though not all Nazi victory books are as good as SS-GB, I’m listing six other alternate novels and five counterfactual histories which I recommend; the list of alternates is in date order of publication.
My first two alternates are famous and iconic SF (science fiction rather than simply speculative) examples, but without a strong UK content:-
Sarban's The Sound of His Horn (1952). Believed to be the first example of a novel positing a Nazi victory, its story is time-travel based 100 years in the future with the Thousand Year Reich well established after winning World War Two, now renamed the War of German Rights, with hunting parks where Reich Master Foresters hunt genetically modified humans.
Sarban was the nom de plume of British diplomat and author John William Wall. The first US paperback edition in 1960 has an introduction from Kingsley Amis (a big SF fan – see his New Maps of Hell (1960) SF survey – as well as a friend of Ian Fleming, supposed final editor of The Man With The Golden Gun, writer of the first 007 continuation novel Colonel Sun as Robert Markham, and other Bondiana).
Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962). Recently shown as a TV mini-series (with some significant differences from the book) it is set in a world 15 years after the end of WW2, where President Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933 and the Nazis and Japanese won the war, invaded the US and occupied it, partitioning it between them. Of course, most of Europe and the Soviet Union were also conquered/occupied by the Nazis. A complex plot involving a shop selling Americana antiques and their forgery, Martin Bormann as the German Chancellor, Nazi defectors, a Nazi invasion of Japan, the “I Ching” and a counterfactual book within the book – “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” - about the Allies winning World War Two!
Philip Dick is generally acknowledged to be one of SF’s finest writers, and High Castle his finest novel, being the 1963 Best Novel Hugo Award winner (these were the SF Oscars). He also wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for the movie Blade Runner. Dick said that his inspiration was Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee (1960), an alternate based on the South winning the American Civil War, as well as William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) and The Goebbels Diaries translated in 1948, amongst others.
The next four alternates are all by mainstream writers:
Frederic Mullally's Hitler Has Won (1975). Set in 1942/3 when Germany has won the war in Europe by defeating Russia, with the Japanese striking north, the US not entering the war and Britain still fighting on hopelessly in the Middle East. Hitler is writing the sequel to Mein Kampf - Mein Sieg! (My Victory).
Mullally was a major anti-fascist political journalist/non-fiction author, taking an active role in opposing Oswald Mosley’s post-war fascist revival - see his Fascism Inside England (1946). He became a successful novelist with the publication of worldwide crime bestseller Danse Macabre (1958), having another major bestseller with Clancy (1971).
Robert Harris's "Fatherland" (1992). In 1964, in the week leading up to Hitler’s 75th birthday, the suspicious death of a Nazi official, once a participant in the Wannsee Conference, is being investigated, only to lead to the other participants are also being targeted.
Harris is one of our most popular authors and another journalist/non-fiction writer turned novelist. This was Harris’s first novel, which became a worldwide bestseller, followed by Enigma (1995) and Archangel (1998) – all three were filmed, with Archangel turned into a TV mini-series starring our current James Bond, Daniel Craig. Harris has written many others, including notably the Cicero Trilogy and most recently Conclave (2016). All are bestsellers.
Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004). The novel’s prime focus is the treatment of the Jews (particularly Philip Roth’s own family) in this alternate, anti-Semitic 1940s United States. The backstory is that Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 US Presidential election by famous aviator and Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh.
Roth is one of America’s most famous and most awarded writers, starting with his first novel Goodbye, Columbus (1959).According to Wikipedia, his work is “known for its intensely autobiographical character, for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction,….. and for its provocative explorations of Jewish and American identity. His profile rose significantly in 1969 after the publication of (the notorious) Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).”
CJ Sansom's Dominion (2012). In 1952, the resistance fights on. In a mental hospital, a scientist holds a secret that could alter the balance of the global struggle. A spy for the resistance is given the mission to rescue the scientist and get him out of the country while being chased by the Gestapo!!
Sansom, a former lawyer, is the author of the bestselling Shardlake crime novels set in the reign of Henry VIII and to be set in the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth I, with lawyer Shardlake working on commissions variously from Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer and Catherine Parr.
Counterfactuals are usually great fun. Mostly they are short essays, so you can dip in and out of the books. Amongst the counterfactuals I particularly like, are:-
What If? (1999) and More What If? (2001), with US military historian Robert Cowley acting as editor. Two anthologies of marvellous essays from different military historians, ranging from what would have happened if the Assyrians took Jerusalem (they didn’t!), to the Korean War. There are some very engaging sections on World War Two and one about the Americans taking Berlin, not the Russians, and the consequences on the Cold War, aptly called “Funeral in Berlin” - no doubt a homage to Len Deighton. What If? contains the Churchill anecdote I refer to above.
Disaster At D-Day – The Germans Defeat the Allies (1994) by US military historian Peter Tsouras (Len Deighton is acknowledged in the blurb on the front dust jacket flap) and two anthologies of essays from different military historians Hitler Triumphant (2006) (SS-GB is included in the Introduction as part of a review of alternates/counterfactuals) and Third Reich Victorious (2007), edited by Tsouras.